Embarrassment over unflattering news coverage or personal information made available for public consumption as public records is nothing new. However, before the rise of the internet, such news stories and public records were kept on paper or magnetic tape in physical files scattered across various offices in thousands of localities across the country. Although archived news stories and public records were technically available for public viewing, they were ‘practically obscure’ because of the enormous amount of time and effort it would take to conduct a comprehensive search on someone in news archives or public records.
For example, to find out if someone had a criminal record, one would have to visit courthouses in all the municipalities and counties in which the person had ever lived. Additionally, one would first have to know or research the person’s complete residential history in order to be sure that the criminal record search was thorough enough to be complete and accurate. What once required a significant amount of effort and motivation to research whether someone has a criminal record, can now be accomplished with an internet connection and a few keystrokes. Now that it is so quick and easy to see if someone has a criminal record, it is not only the truly determined and motivated who are digging into others’ past, but those who are simply curious and nosey can easily check on the past of everyone they know.
In the past, the amount of effort, time, and complexity involved in looking into a person’s past or conducting research on him or her effectively precluded people from doing so out of idle curiosity. Accordingly, while a person’s embarrassing and personal information were still available to the public before the internet age, such information was effectively unavailable or practically obscure to the average person. It is not as though, for the most part, the type and quantity of information that is made available to the public has changed with the rise of the internet. What has changed is how that information is accessible. The internet has transformed once obscure news and public records archives into highly visible and temptingly accessible repositories of everyone’s dirty little secrets.
This brings us to the issue of unpublish requests. They were relatively rare in the past because, as discussed above, it was so difficult for the general public to snoop into someone else’s past, and not something undertaken on a whim or out of boredom. So an embarrassing tidbit of information from a person’s past was effectively kept secret or unknown to the public at large due to ‘practical obscurity.’ In contrast, lapses in judgment and indiscretions from decades ago are now extremely visible and conspicuous on the internet for all the world to see. This is the reason that news organizations are experiencing exponential growth in the number of unpublish requests being received. The number of requests will only increase in the future. Therefore, it is critical for news organizations as well as other publishers of online content to have a well thought-out unpublish policy.